The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The times, they are a changing...

Advent 1B
Mark 13:24-37

 In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

The times, they are a changing…

That’s a subject that often makes us a bit nervous - change.  But it’s been said that the only constant in life is change, so we’d better find a way to make our peace with it.

But change doesn’t have to be scary if we ready ourselves for it.  And that’s what Advent is all about - readying ourselves for the change that’s in store.

This Advent may feel a little bit different to you.  There are different schools of thought about the role of Advent in the life of the church, and how it should be observed.  Some liturgists think of Advent as like a “little Lent” - drawing on the similarities between Advent and Lent, in that they are both seasons of preparation for understanding new realities about God.

But some other scholars of liturgy would argue that there’s a different tone in the sense of preparation between the two seasons.  Where Lent is a season of penitence as we prepare for the death of Jesus; Advent is a season of expectation, wherein we prepare for his birth.  While both seasons hold elements of surprise for the people of God, the surprise of resurrection is a little more jarring than the surprise of birth - even this birth.  Lent is meant to mirror the season of preparation that Jesus experienced when we spent 40 days in the wilderness steeling himself for ministry.  Advent, on the other hand, is more like the season of preparation that new parents go through when they’re expecting the birth of a child.  Advent is a season that is pregnant with hope and expectation that keeps growing until it can no longer be contained: it must be birthed into the world.

So, you can see - there are certainly some similarities between Advent and Lent, but there are also some differences.  I expect that I’ll be highlighting the differences a little more than you may be used to.

And though change may sometimes seem unsettling, it’s important to remember that it is a hallmark of our faith.  If there were any doubt of that, we would only have to look at the lessons appointed for today - on this, the first Sunday of Advent - to see how much the church is driving us toward embracing change.

The prophecy of Isaiah is crying out to God to intercede on the suffering of God’s people.  It embraces the role of God as the agent of holy change: “we are the clay, and you are our potter”.  Change us, the prophet prays.

Jesus speaks of change on a more cosmic scale: “Heaven and earth will pass away,” he says, “but my words will not pass away.”

Wrap your minds around that for just a moment.  Even if we can imagine the earth passing away - how sure must Christ’s words be, if they are more stable even than heaven?  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not…”

We often meet change with anxiety.  But not only is it inevitable, it’s often for the best.

Earlier this week, I stumbled across a lovely (and sort of challenging) prayer written by Sir Francis Drake as he was preparing to embark on a voyage to circumnavigate the earth.  We may not be able to really imagine what a feat that was - to sail around the world - but remember that it had only been done successfully one time before.  It had been less than a century since Columbus had crossed the Atlantic.  The world, for those travelers was vast and untamed.  Anything could happen on such a voyage.  It would be perilous, at best.

In those days of preparation for what might have easily been the last days of Drake’s life, these were his words:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
with the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life,
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wilder seas
Where storms will show Your mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.

We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push back the future
In strength, courage, hope, and love.

This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.

It is a daring and brave thing to pray for God’s disturbance.  We are the people of a God who is a masterful disturber.  And while it may be an intimidating thing to pray for that disturbing, the truth of the matter is, God is going to disturb us.  God is going to disrupt us.  When we are complacent with the comforts of the world; when we are complicit with the injustices of the world; when we are conspirators with the false powers of the world: we need to be disturbed.  And God will do that for us, whether we want it or not - whether we expect it or not.  Whether we are ready or not.  God is a disturbing God.

If you think about it, is that really such a bad thing?

In a world gripped by violence and fear, we could stand to have the status quo disturbed.  In a world defined by income inequality that leaves a few people of privilege with vast, unfathomable resources, while the rest of the world struggles, often futilely, merely to survive, we need change, no matter how much we fear it.  In a world of racism, and xenophobia, and all of the other products that come from the marriage of fear and greed, we need Christ.  We need God to intercede.

The hope of Advent is that Christ will disturb us where we most need it.  The promise of Christmas is that by knowing God more intimately, we will be changed.  Even though it’s probably a little bit scary, we need to be changed.  We might as well get ready.

The times, they are a changing.  Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

But what if we fail?

Proper 28A
Matthew 25:14-30

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Somehow, to my surprise, I’ve made all the way through mid-November, and I haven’t used a single football metaphor in my preaching this Fall.  I almost can’t believe it.  It’s probably because my team - LSU - hasn’t had a particularly inspiring season, so it’s been hard to think of the game as a source of inspiration this year.

But even so, as I was preparing for today, this football-related quote kept running through my mind: “One of the hardest things in the world to do, is to go into a locker room at halftime, and chuck a strategy that’s been working all season up to now, and try to do something entirely different.”

We long for stability.  We tend to want things to stay just as they are - just as we understand them.  We yearn for predictability, and the comfort of “the way we’ve always done it”.  We often joke about that in the church - the paralysis that can come from “the way we’ve always done it” - but it’s not just true in the church.  It’s a temptation that we all face in our lives at one point or another, and every human system (being made up of humans, as they are) can easily fall into that same trap: the trap of familiarity and safety and comfort.

We hear about the paralysis that can come from an idolatry of the familiar in the Parable of the Talents.  It might be among the most misunderstood of the parables.  But here’s a hint: it’s not really about money at all.

On the surface, however, that might be all we’re tempted to hear.  For one thing, money is so much at the center of our lives.  It’s no wonder we might catch ourselves seeing it everywhere we turn.  Also, since this parable always comes to us around this time of year, churches will often try to fold it into the annual stewardship campaigns.

But the reality is, in this parable, money is nothing more than a tool.  It’s a metaphor.  A device that’s used to make a larger point.

If we were to take this parable at face value, without giving it a critical eye and a discerning heart, we’d get a very unappealing idea of who God is, and what God’s dreams for us are.  At face value, it almost seems that Jesus is offering us the image of a God who is greedy and demanding.  A God whom the average person could never hope to please.  A God who is only looking for us to give him more - more money, more work, more product…

But thankfully we do have the critical eyes and discerning hearts that God has given us!

What I hear in this parable is not so much about answering the idolatry of greed, or the idolatry of busy-ness.  Instead, what I hear is God calling us away from our risk-averse propensities, and toward a place of faith in action.

Several weeks ago I introduced a concept in one of my sermons: functional atheism.  Basically, functional atheism is what happens when people claim to be people of faith, but who fail to live as though they have faith.  Functional atheism happens when we try to micromanage the world around us into producing our desired results, with little thought to placing faith in God to deliver us.  It’s when we try to engineer our own salvation, as if we don’t trust that God already has.

Functional atheism can manifest as our actions - as if our business will somehow secure our destiny.  Or, it can also manifest as inaction - holding perfectly still, as if we could somehow keep the world from changing into something we’d wished it wouldn’t.

Today’s Gospel lesson is about rejecting the temptation of functional atheism: the inactive kind.

The slave who is put forward as the example not to follow - the one who simply buried what he had been given - wasn’t “cast into the outer darkness” so much because of his inability to produce huge results, but because he didn’t even try.  He was motivated only by fear.  Because he was afraid to do something wrong, he did nothing at all.

So often we can be that way in the church.  We are afraid to take risks.  We let one nay-sayer derail a widely supported project because we are afraid someone might leave.  We turn our focus in toward ourselves because we’re afraid to trust that God will protect us when we move beyond our comfortable, or at least contended environs.

This is particularly true when churches feel threatened.  When we see our attendance numbers trending downward, or when our pledges stop being enough to sustain us through the year - whenever the institution starts to recognize it’s own potential mortality - we retreat.  We wall ourselves off.  We try to play it safe.  In the words of the Gospel: we bury our talents.

But God is not a safe God.  If we look back through the story of our faith, we see that God is always pushing boundaries, and trying new things, and making God’s self available to creation in ever-new ways.

To be a Christian - to be a follower of this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Mary, Jesus, and Paul - to follow that risky God, we, too, will have to risk.  We can’t bury our talents in the ground.  We have to boldly try for something that seems impossible.

I don’t know what that means yet here at Holy Trinity.  But I do know that it’s true.  I know that we’re going to have to risk being a little uncomfortable.  I know that we’re going to have to risk turning ourselves away from “the way we’ve always done it”.  We may even have to risk letting some people get mad at us.

That doesn’t mean we’ll be irresponsible.  It certainly doesn’t mean that we’ll be uncaring.  It just means that we have to be open to new ways of being the Body of Christ here in Valley Stream, or wherever we may be called.

It might mean that we’ll fail.  That’s a scary thing to think about, but it is the other side of risk.  Sometimes we fail.  But the only way we can guarantee failure is to shield and hoard all that we’ve been given and refuse to let it blossom into the will of God.  We’re capable of so much more.

One of the great preachers of the 20th century was the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr.  One of his famous benedictions is still timely advice for the church.  May they be our guide as we listen for how God is calling us.

    “May God grant you the grace never to sell yourself short;
    grace to risk something big for the sake of something good;
    grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth
    and too small for anything but love.”

If we live our lives and guide this church with this in mind, we are sure to find the will of God.  Amen.